When the manuscript for Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John came across my desk, I was immediately pulled in by the story of a deaf girl managing a high school rock band. It was full of characters I wanted to know more about, from Piper whose parents have just blown her college fund on a cochlear implant for her deaf baby sister, to Ed who has a secret crush on Piper, to Kallie who is the gorgeous girl with secrets of her own, to Tash, the angry punk-rock chick, to Josh and Will - twin brothers who couldn't be more different.
It didn't occur to me that this was a book about diversity when I first read it - to me it was about a group of teens going through the things that teens do, told in an authentic way. It's about self-expression and self-confidence, creating your own identity, standing up for yourself, falling in love for the first time, breaking out of your shell, being brave. Yet Piper is deaf, Ed is Asian, Kallie is biracial, and Tash, Josh, and Will are white. It is clear in the story that they are, but to me the story was never about them being only those things so I hardly even noticed that first read through.
But Antony John is one smart writer, and if you dig deeper into the story, it is very much about diversity and how we see other people and ourselves. Piper assumes that people only see her as the deaf girl and hates that, yet she sees Josh and Will as the rich guys, Kallie as the beautiful popular girl, Ed as the chess-playing nerd, and Tash as just plain scary. She's using surface stereotypes to form her initial impressions of each of the band members, and therefore falling into the same behavior that she blames others for using about her.
According to Antony:
The book then strips down the stereotypes, and allows Piper (and therefore us) to see the layers of each character emerge. One was to help this process was to cast characters we think we already know: the chess-playing Asian nerd, the glamorous biracial Queen Bee.
All the same, I wouldn't have made these choices without being sure I could negate the stereotypes by the end of the book. Hence, wallflower Kallie ends up in a Kurt Cobain-like gray cardigan, screaming grunge lyrics. And Ed has given up chess and unleashed his inner rock star too.
Piper, and the readers along with her, comes to a deeper understanding about each of the band members, about herself and her own family, and about the way she used stereotypical judgment as protection against what she assumed everyone thought of her.
So while I hadn't thought much about the diverse aspect of this novel when first reading it, Antony John had thought about it a lot while he was writing. That's what made my job so easy, and made me instantly want to sign up this book. These were kids I recognized and could relate to, and their story felt real. I knew them as fully fleshed-out people because Piper was willing to let down her guard, abandon her defensive stereotypes, and see them for all that there were, and show them who she really was. And she showed me too.